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Mental Health

Can Your Diet Really Help Improve Anxiety?

Is there really truth to the idea that altering your diet can soothe anxiety? We’re breaking down the scientific support behind using food to tame anxiety symptoms.

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Anxiety is incredibly common – but that doesn’t make it an easy health condition to live with. The physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety can be completely debilitating, persistent and stressful. But the good news is, your diet has the potential to help. 

While different therapies and medications are among the most effective treatment approaches for anxiety, your diet can also play an effective role. Eating the right foods could be a complementary treatment. And your diet just might be able to help you manage your anxiety or its symptoms. Whether you’re dealing with anxious feelings and thoughts or are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), here’s how your diet could help to calm and ground you. 

Diet can be a treatment option

When most people think about treating or managing anxiety, they think of prescription medications. Yet this isn’t the only option. As Harvard Health Publishing explains, your diet can also be a fantastic – and impactful – anxiety management solution.

An overall healthy diet can have a positive effect on anxiety and its symptoms. For example, emotional disorders and mood swings can be tied to glycemic swings such as high or low blood sugar. So, eating complex carbs instead of simple carbs can help you maintain more consistent blood sugar, which may help alleviate some anxiety symptoms. Antioxidant-rich foods can also have a positive effect, as anxiety just might be connected to lower antioxidant levels.

Additionally, paying close attention to your gut health can be significant for anxiety. Harvard Health notes that as many as 95 percent of all serotonin receptors are in the gut lining – which means that keeping your gut in good shape with prebiotics and probiotics may have a positive effect on your mental health. 

Additionally, two specific diets have shown promise for anxiety: the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.

The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables alongside healthy fats, holds great potential according to a 2011 study. Students who increased their omega-3 fatty acid intake – a nutrient that’s found in the fatty fish recommended on the Mediterranean diet – saw a 20 percent reduction in anxiety. A 2019 study showed that sticking with the Mediterranean diet’s principles, like high fruit and veggie intake, resulted in lower odds of anxiety, depression and psychological distress. This may be due to the beneficial nutrients found in fruits and vegetables, but another study hypothesized that it might be a reduction in red meat consumption that had the biggest effect. Eating a lot of red meat has been linked to anxiety, particularly in women.

The DASH diet, on the other hand, emphasizes reducing the amount of red meat, added sugar and fat you’re eating. A 2017 study found that reducing sugar in particular can be great for anxiety – those who ate the most sugar were 23 percent more likely than those who ate little sugar to develop anxiety or depression. Another more recent study shows that sticking closely to the DASH diet can lower the odds of developing anxiety or depression.

How diet can help soothe anxiety

What is it about certain healthy habits or dietary changes that make them work well for anxiety? Scientists don’t have all of the answers just yet, but they do know that there’s a link between food and mood.

Different nutrients can affect your serotonin levels and receptors, along with other hormones and chemicals that shape your mental health. For example, consuming too much sugar can decrease brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which plays a role in the development of anxiety. Eating a diet rich in some proteins (like turkey, chicken, fish, beans and yogurt) is linked to an increase in dopamine and norepinephrine, two brain chemicals that shape your mood.

And some foods, like those rich in antioxidants, have been shown to boost your mood and outlook. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables, for example, can make you happier and increase your well-being.

As more research is conducted, more answers about the link between diet and anxiety – along with diet and mental health – will appear. For now, diet holds plenty of potential. But it’s important to keep in mind that diet is best and most effective when used in combination with other approaches like lifestyle changes, medication and therapies. 

Learn more about how your nutrition can offer potential help for anxiety, stress and other conditions:

Featured Recipe: Mediterranean Shrimp & Farro Pilaf